Old Cape Cod: Can it still be saved from overgrowth?

If you're fond of sand dunes and salt sea air, quaint little villages here and there, you're sure to fall in love with old Cape Cod

From the song ''Old Cape Cod'' m

Patti Page's hit song of the 1950s remains pretty close to the mark. There are still sand dunes and quaint little villages. And it is still possible to fall in love with Cape Cod.

In the dappled sunlight of a spring afternoon, its charm is especially obvious. Lilacs and dogwood frame traditional weathered gray cottages. An empty parking lot allows an unhurried stop for lunch at a tiny harbor. Elderly men rest their fishing rods on the railing of a bridge where Bass River empties into Nantucket Sound.

But behind the quiet beauty of the famous 70-mile-long peninsula now there is something else: a growing concern that it is failing in its attempts to fend off the relentless forces of development. Without a comprehensive approach to growth - and soon - critics warn that the cape is headed for crisis.

Arthur Palmer, a New York lawyer and development consultant, told a meeting on the cape late last month that it is ''riding for a terrible downfall.'' He called it ''a textbook case of a community headed over the cliff.''

Dr. John Teal, head of the biology department at the world-famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, puts it somewhat less forcefully. ''I think,'' he says, ''the cape is going to become a less pleasant place to live.''

Such alarms have been heard before. But there is new urgency to them now.

Cape Cod has become the fastest-growing county of the 57 in the six-state New England region. Not counting the hundreds of thousands of summer visitors, the cape's population increased 53 percent - to 147,900 - between the 1970 and 1980 federal censuses. And the growth shows no sign of slackening. There are projections that the year-round population will go to more than 230,000 before the turn of the century.

Real estate people report their sales activity has never been as intense as during the current quarter. Housing construction set a five-year record in the fourth quarter of last year. And so much vacant land is being offered to would-be developers that wags say if there were an official Cape Cod flower it would probably have to be the ''for sale'' sign.

Planners aren't worried about whether there is enough room for all the new arrivals; the cape could conceivably handle as many people as live in Manhattan (about 1,428,000). Rather, they worry about the strain that so much development is having on its fragile resources - environmental as well as aesthetic.

The No. 1 concern of those who live here, newspaper polls show, is water quality. After that, they are concerned that the cape's charm may be disappearing.

And with good reason.

A mile or two from vistas still as unspoiled as those Henry David Thoreau wrote about in admiration last century are scenes so garish that the familiar fast-food outlets are some of the most attractive features.

Along a 14-mile stretch of Route 28 between Hyannis and West Harwich, for example, are businesses that greet the public with huge ceramic elephants, dolphins, horses, and whales. At another, an old-fashioned rocket stands on its tail fins, painted to resemble - of all things - a banana. Other establishments feature multistory replicas of windmills and lighthouses, and one has a larger-than-life Southern gentleman dressed in a black plantation suit, leaning on a cane, and doffing a top hat to passers-by.

Nor is that all. The town of Yarmouth recently approved a planned combination restaurant-amusement center where food will be served by robots. A proposal in another town calls for a combination pizza restaurant and theater with cartoon-character waiters and waitresses, one of whom would be called Chuck E. Cheese.

Already, alarms are being sounded over development along Route 134, a secondary road that runs north from Route 28 to some of the quaintest of the villages Patti Page sang about.

The biweekly Cape Codder, published in Orleans, has editorialized: ''We have more difficulty understanding (tourists) who come looking for game rooms, rental color TV sets, nightclubs, and as many of the entertainment facilities similar to the city as they can find.''

''Some people call the cape the Florida of the North,'' says David Hall of the Cape Cod Planning and Economic Development Commission. ''Other people call it the Hong Kong of the East.''

Still others call enough enough.

Anticipating the possibility that their town could become the unwilling home of an adult entertainment center, the citizens of Bourne - gateway to the cape - last month became the first in Massachusetts to vote in favor of a new zoning ordinance to control pornographic book stores, nightclubs featuring nude entertainment, massage parlors, and the like.

Voters in Brewster decided at their town meeting, also in May, to extend a year-old moratorium on condominium construction, although single-family houses will escape the ban.

Chatham is giving business owners three years to phase out internally lighted advertising signs.

These kinds of decisions are being made, piecemeal, all over the cape. Indeed , towns here have been amending their zoning ordinances since the mid-1970s in an effort to come to grips with development.

But, says Esther Snyder, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, not all towns start from the same basis or move at the same pace. And, she adds, state and federal support in the resource-protection effort ''is still falling far short of where it ought to be.''

State environmental codes are, by nature, minimum standards, Ms. Snyder says.

''The cape is a geographical entity which, we feel, lends itself to regional protection. An awful lot of problems have to be addressed regionally - water, solid waste, wildlife protection,'' she argues.

But there have been barriers so far to the regional approach.

Those who favor the strongest controls on development tend to be the most recent arrivals, whereas residents whose families have lived here for generations and may own undeveloped property are often resentful of efforts to curb growth.

''There is a certain regional cohesiveness,'' says Mr. Hall of the planning commission. ''But when it comes to regional planning, they forget about it.''

His colleague, Susan Nickerson, adds: ''These controls are antagonistic to the type of economic development that most people want.''

Then, too, there is the question of the cape's relative political weakness. More than half of its representatives in the legislature in Boston are conservative Republicans. But the GOP is outnumbered 33 to 7 in the state Senate and 132 to 28 in the House of Representatives.

An attempt to win a charter commission for Barnstable County - in effect, a home-rule effort - went nowhere last year in the legislature.

This is viewed as ironic by those involved in planning here, because many state legislators own property and like to vacation on the cape. In fact, if the mere presence of important politicians meant anything, the cape would be influential out of all proportion to its size and population. US Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) and Paul Tsongas (D), Speaker of the House Thomas (Tip) O'Neill (D), and US Rep. Gerry Studds (D), all of Massachusetts, have homes scattered among the 15 towns here. So does former US Attorney General Elliot Richardson.

Says Peter McDowell, himself a former state legislator and now a builder and Realtor in the town of Dennis, ''The builder, the developer, is the natural enemy of those who treasure wildlife.''

''I have, to a degree, to take exception to that,'' he continues. ''If you do a tasteful job in a quality setting, probably the person who's going to buy the home is an environmentalist. Those who treasure the environment most want to live next to it.''

Mr. McDowell also maintains that the population growth in his area of the cape has been so great that business expansion hasn't kept pace with it.

''The quality of what is happening here of a commercial nature is good,'' he argues. ''And if it isn't, it's the fault of government.''

The more people who are involved in change, the better, McDowell says. But he admits that some confrontations between environmentalists and developers have been ''very emotional'' and that ''there has been bitterness.''

Bitterness, in fact, is simmering in Orleans, at the center of the cape, over a proposal to build a sewer system that would serve the downtown business district.

It has, says hardware store owner Bill Baskin, chief opponent of the plan, turned ''neighbor against neighbor and longtime friend against longtime friend.''

Mr. Baskin acknowledges that the sewer would probably stimulate new development in town and, therefore, more business for his store. But ''I've got enough,'' he claims. ''I believe there has to be growth. But it has to be controlled - by all means possible.''

At the center of virtually every confrontation over development is the subject of water; people here discuss it constantly. And attempts at capewide water regulation were begun as long ago as 1973.

It's not that the cape lacks sufficient fresh water. It is blessed with abundant - and, so far, cheap - water. But all the water comes from a so-called ''sole source'' underground aquifer, one of only 12 in the United States, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Tapping into the Cape Cod aquifer are 130 public supply wells and 15,000 private wells, according to water specialists at the planning commission. So any threat to the ground water from chemical contamination, discharge from sewage systems, and runoff from fertilized lawns and gardens has potential implications beyond the immediate source of the pollution.

And already there are known problems all over the cape. Water wells in Provincetown, the popular tourist destination at the outer tip of the peninsula, have been operating at greatly reduced capacity for years because of contamination from a gasoline spill. It is estimated that the ultimate cost of cleanup could top $3.5 million.

From a sewage treatment plant at Otis Air Force Base on the upper cape, an underground plume of contamination has spread southward two miles toward Nantucket Sound. That may not sound like much of an area, except that it has taken 30 years to travel this far. It will continue to endanger water wells and other property in its path before it passes out to sea years from now.

At Falmouth, southwest of the air base, town ponds are showing signs of eutrophication from too rich a diet of chemical nutrients and too little oxygen.

But what makes planners most uneasy is that all the industrial parks and most of the sanitary landfills lie along the spine of the cape, exactly in the prime ''recharge'' areas - that is, where the greatest amount of rainfall soaks into the ground and resupplies the aquifer at its highest elevations.

The cape has no smokestack industries, but in Barnstable alone, a 1981 study found, more than 40 products of a toxic or hazardous nature in common use - including PCBs, phenols, sulfuric acid, and cyanide. And of the 800-acre Barnstable industrial park, only 50 acres have been developed so far.

More immediate is the problem of landfills. Every one of the 15 towns has one , and some will reach capacity in fewer than 10 years, according to the county planning commission. Moreover, the planners suspect there may be a plume of contamination under each one stemming from materials buried there.

The commission projects that the volume of solid waste will mushroom from 158 ,500 tons in 1980 to 235,300 tons by the year 2000, counting what is disposed of by summer visitors.Many people agree that the ideal solution to the solid-waste problem would be a trash-to-energy plant. But they are extremely costly to build. And although there appears to be a ready market for the electricity that such a plant on the cape would generate, the same isn't true for the large quantities of hot water that also would be produced.

Meanwhile, towns here are depending on master plans, conservation commissions , zoning changes, and a more recent phenomenon - land trusts - to help check the explosive growth. The latter are nonprofit conservation agencies that accept deeds to undeveloped property from private citizens for varying periods of time, with the agreement that the land not be built on. In return, the town in question grants the citizens major property tax breaks. Already Chatham, Orleans , Falmouth, and Eastham have land trusts, and Barnstable is in the process of forming one.

If growth is not controlled, says David Hall, ''all these villages are going to merge someday, and we will see some of them lose their identities.''

Will Cape Cod lose control of its own destiny? ''It will unless the decisions are made to avoid it,'' says Ms. Snyder of the preservation association. ''I think there's still time.'' But she adds, ''maybe not much time.''

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